Seth J. Frantzman

How Israel became a world leader in vaccination

How Israel became a world leader in vaccination
A vaccine dose is prepared in Tel Aviv (photo: Getty)
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On a cold night three days before the end of the 2020 I drove down to Jerusalem’s Pais Arena. The area is usually a sports venue, next to Jerusalem’s stadium and mall, but in December it was transformed into a centre for mass vaccinations, open from morning till ten in the evening. By the first day of 2021 Israel had vaccinated more than 1 million people in two weeks, an unprecedented number, making the country a global leader in vaccinating against Covid-19. I was one of those who received the first jab of the Pfizer vaccine.

Israel’s path to this milestone has been a rollercoaster of lockdowns and struggles over the last year. Back in February 2020 the country was on alert for the spread of the coronavirus. Italy had put a dozen towns into lockdown on February 22 and Israel was planning for a worst-case scenario. Many Israelis felt the government at the time was being alarmist when it warned about a group of South Korean tourists who had tested positive, and imposed travel restrictions on several Asian countries. It turned out Jerusalem was right.

Israel scrambled in March to acquire personal protective equipment, even sending the Mossad spy agency to acquire 10 million items to make sure medical professionals and average people had access to the face coverings. I remember searching for masks at the time when they had all been stripped from the shelves. By March 27 Israel had also mobilized its army to help enforce a strict lockdown, with soldiers helping the police with checkpoints, delivering food and helping the needy.

Israel’s unique approach has been to use a national security apparatus that is usually used to confront terrorists to fight against the virus. This was only possible because of a solidarity among Israelis. This wasn’t always the case – some communities continued to hold weddings and funerals in breach of the guidelines and some officials violated the rules by inviting family members for holidays – but in general Israel was able to mobilise nationally against Covid because it has a citizen’s army and national security ethos that is used to fighting wars. Israel’s ‘home front command’ for instance often carries out drills to deal with earthquakes and national disasters, and has been tasked with distributing gas masks in past wars.

But the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his tenth year in power and heading for his fourth election campaign in two years, had to balance lockdown with the destruction it wrought on the economy. After restricting travellers from entering the country, Israel’s tourism industry was crushed and hundreds of thousands have lost work this year. Unemployment reached 26 per cent in May but by September the relaxed restrictions led to the highest infection rate in the world for Covid.

Israel’s government gambled on acquiring masses of vaccines to try to right the ship in the fall of 2020. It acquired 8 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in November, with some 4 million doses arriving in early December. Israel also scrambled to acquire Moderna’s vaccine, purchasing 6 million doses in December. Israel’s population is just under 9 million. After the Pfizer vaccine was approved in line with the US in mid-December, the rollout of the vaccine began on December 20, two weeks after the UK kicked off its own vaccine programme. The Israeli health authorities set a goal of 150,000 vaccinations a day, beginning with those over 60 years old, as well as soldiers, police and medical staff.

When mass vaccinations began people received text messages to go to their health insurance provider to get vaccinated. Israel has several large state-mandated semi-private healthcare providers and every citizen is registered with one of them. Even foreigners without health providers have been able to get vaccinated at the mass vaccination points in some cases. At the Arena in Jerusalem two of the providers, Clalit and Maccabi,  set up mass vaccination centres. Those arriving, like I did in late December, queued to see if we could enter. Those under 60 were told that if there were leftover vaccines at the end of the day they would be let in. This is because Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be at minus 70 degrees Celsius and extra doses would otherwise be disposed of. Standing in the long, cavernous halls that circle the arena I waited to receive the vaccine. One by one we were let in, like being on standby for a flight. A short walk took me to a series of divided stations where medical staff logged my name and jabbed me with a shot. They said ‘wait 15 minutes and register for your second dose.’ If all goes as planned I’ll be back in late January.

While Israel quickly vaccinated a million people it now needs to pause some of its phenomenal progress to make sure that everyone is able to receive the second dose on time. The country has sought to get its Moderna shipments early with 1 million new doses coming in early January. The roll-out has been impressive so far, with Israel vaccinating around eight times more per capita than the UK. Nevertheless, Israel is still in its third national lockdown and is preparing for yet another round of elections. Officials are concerned that the latest lockdown isn’t tough enough.

Many Israelis have had to forego vacations this year and the country has felt cut off from much of the world. One exception was Israel’s peace deal with the United Arab Emirates and the rapid expansion of flights to Dubai that saw 50,000 Israelis jet off to enjoy the Gulf in early December. It was a strange year. In March the streets were deserted and soldiers were deployed outside our house at a checkpoint. Restaurants have been closed since September, with only a few bars operating like secretive speakeasies. Constant uncertainty over flights and the need to get tested before travel makes it hard to go anywhere. People are hopeful the vaccine will mean a kind of ‘travel health passport’ will be put in place. In the meantime, the spread of the virus continues to shutter schools and force people into quarantine, as our family has had to do twice this year. Hopefully the new year will bring new hope.